Wish You Were Here

by Inge Kummant
Today, as our republic faces grave dangers, it may be helpful to consider the man who, more than anyone else, gave us that republic in the first place, George Washington, the Father of the Country.  We think of our most severely tested presidents as Lincoln and Roosevelt because they served during our two greatest wars.  We know a great deal about them as human beings, in part because they are closer to us in time. 
 
Washington, on the other hand, is a more distant figure, frozen in the past with his powdered wig and wooden teeth.  One wonders what he was like as a living man.  Did he have a sense of humor, how did he carry himself, what was the sound of his voice?  He did not leave a great many speeches or writings, and therefore we depend on historians to gather and interpret the details of his life. 
 
Yet we do know that Washington succeeded magnificently in three great challenges that made our existence as a nation possible: he led the Continental Army through a long, difficult, desperate war; he presided over the Constitutional Convention; and he served as the first President, setting all of the major precedents for the management of the executive branch and its interaction with the other branches.  Any of these would have been enough for his name to live on.
 
In a recent lecture at the Ashbrook Center, historian Douglas Bradburn made the case that Washington's character was the foundation of his achievements.  His known character earned the trust of his compatriots, and that trust made them ready to follow his leadership.  (Bradburn, who is Founding Director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, spoke at Ashland University on March 18.  His lecture, titled "The Power of Character: George Washington and the Art of Leadership," will be made available at http://audio.ashbrook.org.)
 
Character in the 1700s had a somewhat different meaning than it does today, according to Bradburn.  The era of the founders was not much interested in the inner man.  Rather, character was what showed in actions and behavior.  It was thus in the power of any person to shape and improve his own character.  Washington held himself to high standards and expected the same of others.
 
Bradburn discussed four aspects of Washington's character, his drive for self-improvement, which began at a young age; his concern with personal honor and reputation; his commitment to virtue in the sense of  "selflessness in the face of public duty;" and finally his humility, the quality of not being motivated by the desire for power.
 
Because Washington lost his father when he was just eleven years old, the family was not able to afford a formal education for him.  Washington remained uncomfortably aware of his inadequate education, Bradburn said.  It is one reason that he was a "reluctant orator" and declined to write his memoirs.  But he was always looking for opportunities to increase his knowledge and skills. 
 
An early example is a writing exercise he undertook at age 15, copying a text titled "100 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation."  He was an avid reader all his life, as is reflected in his library at Mount Vernon. Washington expected others also to take the initiative and take their education into their own hands.  One illustration comes from a somewhat impatient letter he wrote in response to a young officer: "The inexperience you complain of is a common case and only to be remedied by practice and reading."
 
Washington's concern with his personal honor is well known.  He was ambitious, but his honor and reputation meant more to him.  A famous case is his resigning from the Virginia militia when the British decreed that the Americans were to be reduced in rank, though not in responsibility.
 
Virtue to Washington meant above all his relationship with his country and community.  A man was bound to do his duty for the public, even at a dear cost to himself.  We can see a detailed exposition of this kind of "virtue" in Washington's favorite play, "Cato," by Joseph Addison.  "Cato" was a huge hit in London when it was first performed in 1712, and also became popular in the colonies.  Washington may have acted in the play as a young man, and later he had it performed for the troops at Valley Forge.
 
Cato was a Roman senator and a prime antagonist of Julius Caesar.  He was a champion of the Roman republic against dictatorship and famous for his personal integrity.  Among other things he served as quaestor, or finance director of Rome, and cut a wide swathe through the rampant corruption of the time.  The play "Cato" takes place in a single day (preserving the "unity of time" in the classical tradition).  Cato is on the ropes.  He and a few loyal senators have retreated to Utica in Africa and are simply waiting for Caesar and his army to arrive and finish them off.  Cato remains true to the republic to the end.
 
(By the way, the play is available free as an ebook.)
 
Bradburn described humility as the quality of not being motivated by the desire for power.  Washington's transparent disinterestedness, his demonstrated commitment to the welfare of the nation over any personal concerns, made people trust him.  George III famously said, when told that Washington planned to return to his farm after winning independence: "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."  Washington of course returned to private life several times, after the revolution and again after his second term as President.
 
Washington's humility is also evident in a precious document owned by the Fred Smith library, a copy of the Constitution he carefully marked as he prepared for his first inauguration.  The annotations show that he was studying to exactly define the powers and duties of the chief administrator of the executive branch (as he called the Presidency in his Farewell Address).  He probably could have done anything he pleased as President, but instead he painstakingly adhered to the letter and spirit of the Constitution.
 
According to Dr. Bradburn, people today still value integrity, trustworthiness, in political and business leaders above all other qualities.
 
If you should be interested in learning more about Washington's life, I can recommend the best-selling, very well written biography by Thomas Flexner, titled Washington: the Indispensible Man.  This is an abridgment of his four-volume biography of Washington, which is also great.
 
Finally, as a former literature teacher, I could not resist reading Addison's "Cato."  What a blast from the past!  "Cato" has the reputation of being difficult to perform because most of the action takes place off stage, but it is full of great speeches and great characters.  Indeed, some of the lines sound quite familiar, because they have often been quoted.  Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" is one example--the line comes from "Cato."
 
The play was successfully revived at an off-Broadway theater called The Flea in 2008, and reviews of the production are available online.
 
The primary plot of "Cato" contrasts the stoic champion of republican Rome, Cato, with the burgeoning dictator, Julius Caesar.  But the secondary plot, about three young men, an African prince and Cato's two sons, is just as interesting.
 
The African prince remains loyal to Cato and wins the hand of Cato's daughter.  (In a letter to Sally Fairfax, a young Washington joked that he would like to play Juba, the African prince, to Sally's Marcia.)  Cato's sons illustrate the difference between the man guided by rationality and the man dominated by his "passions," or emotions.  One son, Portius, has a character like his father's, but his brother, Marcus, is a bipolar emotional basket case.  The latter brings only misery to himself and the people around him.
 
The subplot of the play makes clear that republican government requires restrained and rational leaders as well as citizens, and that extravagant emotions go hand-in-hand with mob psychology and dictatorship.  In order to govern properly, we first must govern ourselves.